Thread of an Idea: Could Silk Change Your Future Trips to the Dentist?

Student projects explore its use for new treatments, products
Dental student Sadaf Foroutanjazi explains to an onlooker how she used silk fiber films to provide controlled release of antibiotics in a dental laboratory experiment.
At the annual Bates-Andrews Day Research Fair, Sadaf Foroutanjazi, DI21, explained how she used silk fiber films to provide controlled release of antibiotics. Photo: Paul Rutherford
March 13, 2020

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Silk, among the most versatile of materials, has been used in products as varied as Hermés scarves, parachutes, and bicycle tires. In the lab, scientists prize it for its amazingly diverse biological and mechanical properties. Now researchers are seeking to capitalize on those traits to improve outcomes in dental care.   

At Tufts School of Dental Medicine, the possibility of using silk to create more durable fillings or deliver antibiotics during dental surgery captured the imaginations of two student researchers, who were among the sixty-eight students presenting their work at the school’s annual Bates-Andrews Day Research Fair on March 4.

Projects incorporating silk into dental materials and treatment have been appearing at the decades-old event for the past ten years or so, said Eileen Doherty, director of predoctoral student research at the dental school.

“Each year, we’re getting closer to utilizing silk fibers in dentistry,” Doherty said. The projects have largely drawn on  the work of David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor in Engineering, who has pioneered the use of silk in numerous biomedical applications. Highlighting the growing connection between Tufts’ dental and engineering schools, his lab produced the silk used in the students’ research.

Silk appeals to dental researchers because it is strong, biodegradable, and able to exist alongside human tissue without causing harm. It can be fashioned into fibers, films, gels, foams, or powders for biomedical applications.

Sadaf Foroutanjazi, DI21, explored the use of silk fiber films to provide controlled release of antibiotics—a technology that could potentially be used to provide localized drug delivery during periodontal and oral surgeries, thus avoiding the need for systemic antibiotics and minimizing antibiotic resistance. She loaded silk fibers with two different antibiotics—tetracycline and doxycycline—at various concentrations and measured their effectiveness in fighting off Streptococcus mutans, a bacterium commonly found in the mouth and a primary contributor to dental disease and decay.

Her findings showed the antibiotic-laden silk was successful in significantly inhibiting the growth of the bacteria in the lab. The work is still a while away from being tested in a clinical setting, but Mahpareh “Mary” Marefat, DI90, assistant professor of periodontics, was excited about the possibilities. “This is going to be very useful,” she said, particularly as a way to treat periodontal conditions before surgery is even needed.

Foroutanjazi’s project, conducted with faculty mentors Gerard Kugel, D85, MSD93, and Driss Zoukhri, received the Multicultural Award for the Advance of Education. 

In another study, the first of its kind, Anthony Atalla, D21, investigated what would happen if a silk powder were incorporated into common dental restorative materials. The results showed promise for increasing the materials’ hardness and tensile strength--the load that a material can bear while being stretched. This could help create more durable, longer-lasting bonding agents that adhere composite filling material to enamel or the dentin beneath.

In addition to its biological and mechanical properties, “silk is cheap and available,” Atalla said, which makes it appealing to dental product manufacturers. Atalla’s work, conducted with faculty mentor Yoon Kang, D08, won the Dr. Chad Anderson Family Award for Innovative Methodology and Research Design.

Silk wasn’t the only glimpse into the future: Other Bates-Andrews projects ran the gamut from ways to improve education and training for new dentists, to a machine-learning program that can help the dental school make more appointments available to patients, to whether the materials used by endodontists pose a risk to patients with gluten intolerance (they don’t). 

Click here for a full list of the winners of the student research competition.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.